Education

Reviews: Ready for Liftoff

May 01, 2002 6 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

A SMILE AS BIG AS THE MOON: A Teacher, His Class, and Their Unforgettable Journey,by Mike Kersjes with Joe Layden. (St. Martin’s Press, 276 pages, $23.95.) In 1987, Kersjes, a Grand Rapids, Michigan, high school football coach and special education teacher, read a magazine article about the U.S. Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama, where teams of bright students from across the country converge to compete in space-oriented activities, culminating in a simulated shuttle mission. Thinking it just the kind of challenge his special ed students needed, Kersjes decided to apply.

Many of the kids had disabilities of one kind or another—dyslexia, Down and Tourette’s syndromes, and the like. Others were emotional wrecks. One boy, a gifted artist who’d done stints in 27 foster homes, was consumed with rage. Although some faculty members at his school characterized these students as “idiots,” Kersjes knew they had the capacity to do well in an exciting “real world” program with clear, meaningful objectives.

His efforts to get them accepted and to raise money for the venture take up almost the first half of this dramatic and moving book, which the teacher co-wrote with journalist Layden. Initially, almost everyone discourages Kersjes from even applying to the camp. His principal sees the endeavor as a pipe dream, telling Kersjes to give it up and just “cover the prescribed curriculum.” Worse still is the reaction of his special ed boss, who is sure the kids are doomed to fail.

But Kersjes persists. Working the old boy network, he secures the support of a U.S. congressman, who pulls strings with the people in Huntsville. He also wins over space-program dignitaries, including a former astronaut, largely by talking college football and challenging them to help his underdog kids. In the end, his students are accepted.

Immediately, Kersjes and Robynn McKinney, a special ed colleague, begin training the students in the skills they will need to compete. They memorize numerous space-travel acronyms (necessary for mission communication), practice building tetrahedrons underwater with plastic rods and nodes (a weightlessness exercise), and construct model rockets. Several times the entire endeavor threatens to fall apart when the kids, poorly equipped to deal with pressure, turn on one another.

For the training, Kersjes’ coaching sensibilities prove essential. Realizing that young people often learn best within the context of meaningful competition, he develops a board game to help his students acquire essential information. He also recognizes that the youngsters, for all of their shortcomings, possess individual strengths that can benefit the team as a whole. One boy, a mechanical whiz, takes the lead in rocket building while a particularly strong swimmer heads the underwater projects.

When Kersjes and his students finally arrive in Huntsville, some kids from other schools ridicule them, one even referring to them as “retards.” But the derision soon gives way to respect after the team gets the top score on a written test of space knowledge. This early success is threatened, though, when in the heat of an event— designing the team’s space patch—the group turns on one of its members. Just as Kersjes is about to intervene, one kid tells him: “Coach, we don’t need you anymore. We can handle this on our own.” And they do. The students end up winning a major award, but their real victory, of course, is their newfound confidence and sense of accomplishment, which for a number of the team members has endured. According to an epilogue, many of the teenagers featured here have gone on to lead productive lives. It’s a heartening story, sure to inspire other teachers struggling with students who often seem beyond their reach.


A MIND AT A TIME: America’s Top Learning Expert Shows How Every Child Can Succeedby Mel Levine. (Simon and Schuster, 352 pages, $26.) Over a long and distinguished career, pediatrician and University of North Carolina professor Levine has consistently warned teachers against affixing labels to kids. The problem with tags such as dyslexia, ADD, and the like, Levine argues here, is that they not only undermine a child’s confidence but are also too general. Behavior that one person might write off as ADD, he claims, could in fact be a breakdown in any one of eight neurocognitive systems—memory, language, and sequential ordering among them. A student struggling with language skills may be inattentive in English class but stay focused during math.

One of Levine’s major themes is that childhood is far more difficult to navigate, in terms of neurocognitive demands, than adulthood. A 10th grader, for example, is expected to be proficient in algebra, essay writing, social interactions, and a number of other areas while adults can choose to specialize in only those things they’re good at. The job of the teacher, Levine writes, is to nurture children’s strengths while minimizing their weaknesses. This might range from giving a daydreaming child a timely tap on the shoulder to making sure that a youngster who can’t write well by hand has access to a word processor. Levine also argues that children be allowed to integrate some given specialty—art, music, math, writing—into a range of other subject areas.

An education expert whose ideas have been shaped by years of clinical pediatrics and common sense, Levine founded the All Kinds of Minds Institute to help schools effectively teach kids with wide-ranging learning styles and abilities. Readers of this wonderful book will quickly see that what struggling students—indeed, all students—need most are sympathetic adults who are willing to take the time to identify their strengths and build on them.


OVERCOMING THE ODDS: Raising Academically Successful African American Young Womenby Freeman Hrabowski, Kenneth Maton, Monica Greene, and Geoffrey Greif. (Oxford, 264 pages, $25.) This study by four academics, a companion to a 1998 volume about successful male African American students, explores the personal histories of 66 young black women who have been accepted to the prestigious Meyerhoff Scholarship Program for future scientists and engineers at the University of Maryland in Baltimore County. Generally speaking, there are no big surprises here. The parents of these women—especially the mothers— had extremely high expectations for their daughters, monitoring their homework from an early age and closely supervising their social lives. In particular, they warned the girls about the need, as one father put it, “to stay away from young men.”

These parents did differ from those of successful students in general in one important respect: They frequently told their daughters that they had to be better than children of other races if they wanted to succeed. And this, alas, seems all too true, as tales abound here of gifted black children who were regularly passed over for high-level math and science classes. The onus was on vigilant parents to intervene, as they often did. One mother’s words to a reluctant school administrator pretty much sum up the collective attitude of all the parents: “If my daughter is not in Algebra II the first day of class, I will come down here, and you will remember my face.”

—David Ruenzel


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
What’s Next for Teaching and Learning? Key Trends for the New School Year
The past 18 months changed the face of education forever, leaving teachers, students, and families to adapt to unprecedented challenges in teaching and learning. As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Curriculum Webinar
How Data and Digital Curriculum Can Drive Personalized Instruction
As we return from an abnormal year, it’s an educator’s top priority to make sure the lessons learned under adversity positively impact students during the new school year. Digital curriculum has emerged from the pandemic
Content provided by Kiddom
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP
Education Massachusetts National Guard to Help With Busing Students to School
250 guard personnel will be available to serve as drivers of school transport vans, as districts nationwide struggle to hire enough drivers.
1 min read
Massachusetts National Guard soldiers help with logistics in this Friday, April 17, 2020 file photo, at a food distribution site outside City Hall, in Chelsea, Mass. Mass. Gov. Charlie Baker on Monday, Sept. 13, 2021, activated the state's National Guard to help with busing students to school as districts across the country struggle to hire enough drivers.
Massachusetts National Guard soldiers help with logistics in this Friday, April 17, 2020 file photo, at a food distribution site outside City Hall, in Chelsea, Mass.
Michael Dwyer/AP
Education FDA: ‘Very, Very Hopeful’ COVID Shots Will Be Ready for Younger Kids This Year
Dr. Peter Marks said he is hopeful that COVID-19 vaccinations for 5- to 11-year-olds will be underway by year’s end. Maybe sooner.
4 min read
Dr. Peter Marks, director of the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research in the Food and Drug Administration, testifies during a Senate health, education, labor, and pensions hearing to examine an update from federal officials on efforts to combat COVID-19 on Capitol Hill in Washington on May 11, 2021. On Friday, Sept. 10, 2021, Marks urged parents to be patient, saying the agency will rapidly evaluate vaccines for 5- to 11-year-olds as soon as it gets the needed data.
Dr. Peter Marks, director of the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research in the Food and Drug Administration, testifies during a Senate health, education, labor, and pensions hearing to examine an update from federal officials on efforts to combat COVID-19 on Capitol Hill in Washington on May 11, 2021.
Jim Lo Scalzo/AP